As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads domestically in the United States, employers should take proactive action to address employee concerns regarding COVID-19, plan for the potential impact of its transmission at the workplace, and be ready to take action in the event of suspected or actual virus exposure at work.

Centralized communication and planning: Employers should ensure they have a centralized leadership team to address workplace communications regarding COVID-19. In addition, a COVID-19 taskforce should review employer policies in the context of virus outbreak.

  1. The COVID-19 taskforce should consist of members of operations, security, HR, legal, and IT.
  2. Employers should instruct supervisors to refrain from questioning employees regarding suspected illnesses. Further, employers should direct supervisors and employees to route all concerns regarding COVID-19 to specifically identified members of the employer’s COVID-19 taskforce.
  3. The COVID-19 taskforce should prepare communications to distribute to the workforce describing:
    • The steps the employer is taking to respond to COVID-19 to ensure a safe workplace.
    • The sources employees can consult for information regarding COVID-19 (e.g., the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization, and the local public health department).
    • Actions employees can take to reduce exposure risk (e.g., washing hands)
    • The employer’s leave, sick, and telecommuting policies.

Contingency plans: Employees may be absent from work not only due to illness, but also in the event of self-quarantine or to care for dependents who are ill or at home due to daycare and school closures. As a result, employers should plan now for how their businesses will continue to operate in the event that a large portion of the workforce is absent. Employer contingency plans should identify key personnel and duties, and provide for cross-training of personnel on duties that are essential to continuous operation of the business.

Maintenance of a safe workplace: Employers should closely monitor federal, state, and local health department communications regarding the status of COVID-19 where the employer operates.

Employers that operate in areas where there currently is not widespread community transmission of COVID-19 should:

  1. Encourage sick employees to remain at home
  2. Separate sick employees from other employees
  3. Emphasize the importance of respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene
  4. Perform routine environmental cleaning
  5. Advise employees to consult travel advisories before travelling

Employers in areas with increased community transmission of COVID-19 may need to take additional steps, including:

  1. Suspending nonessential travel
  2. Minimizing the number of employees working within arm’s length of one another (including minimizing or canceling large, in-person meetings and conferences)
  3. Encouraging sick employees to remain at home and increasing the flexibility of the employer’s leave policies
  4. Implementing the use of telecommuting
  5. Staggering employees’ start and end times to reduce situations in which large numbers of employees come together at one time
  6. Increasing environmental cleaning of the workplace

Minimizing Potential Exposure: Employers should implement procedures to reduce the chance of exposure at the workplace, including asking visitors and employees about recent travel in the past 14 days and whether they have experienced any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (shortness of breath, cough, or fever). Any visitors or employees who have traveled to areas with community transmission of COVID-19 (per CDC guidance), or who are exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19, should be denied access to the worksite.

Before allowing individuals who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 to return to the worksite, employers should require that they be fever free for a minimum of 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medicine. While employers may require a doctor’s note indicating the individual does not present an exposure risk, employers should recognize that medical professionals are likely to be very busy and may not be able to promptly provide documentation.